The Gulf Between Us: A Deep Dive into the Plight of Migrant Women 

By Raiyah Butt

Illustration by @smishdesigns


*TRIGGER WARNING: mentions of death and abuse*


In a rare case this week in Riyadh, a verdict was reached over the tragic death of Abiron Begum Ansar. She was a Bangladeshi domestic migrant worker found beaten to death by her employers in Saudi Arabia, in March 2019. Abiron’s family said she had complained that her employer had poured hot water over her and pushed her face into a metal grill as a form of punishment before she was brutally killed. In a heartbreaking testament, her brother-in-law said that her body was found in such a horrible state, their family couldn’t look at it.


The Riyadh Criminal Court found the wife of the house, Ayesha al-Jazani, guilty of murder and sentenced her to the death penalty at the request of Abiron’s family. The husband, Bassen Salem, was found guilty of tampering with the crime scene, sending Abiron to work for other people and not paying her medical care. He was given 38 months in prison and a fine of 50,000 Saudi riyals. But, somehow, I can’t help but feel that this is not exactly the win we all had in mind.


And Then There Was COVID


If we’re not counting the lining of Jeff Bezos’ pockets, then there is literally nothing that hasn’t been made worse by COVID-19. The vulnerability of migrant workers is one of those things. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that eight million jobs (or 13.2% of working hours) were lost across the entire Arab regime in the second quarter of 2020. Lockdowns and travel restrictions meant a lot of migrants were left stranded with no work, unpaid wages, no adequate housing or shelter, and thus subject to unsanitary conditions, arbitrary detentions or deportations. Given that migrant women predominantly occupy domestic and care work, the pandemic amplified a lot of the existing vulnerabilities of limited access to healthcare and social protections and poor living conditions. The additional risks of having to still work in other homes meant that migrant women do not have the privilege of self-isolating or social-distancing. Long days became longer, thus exploitation became more rampant. With many migrant women confined to their employers home, it leaves them in a position where there is no easy exit or escape from abuse they may be suffering.


But if it’s That Bad, Why Go?


The primary reasons for migration for women are employment opportunities and wage levels that are significantly more competitive than those of many South Asian and African countries. For those in a state of economic desperation, working in the Gulf might initially look like a reasonably good deal. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - host over 30 million migrants, representing 51% of their total population, yet effectively hold 0% of any protections, rights, or social safety from the state. The largest portion of these come from South Asia, with the remainder hailing from South East Asia, and North East Africa as well.


Under the kafala system, migrants are tied to the legal residency of their employer, who decides their contractual agreement. This leaves the field wide open for exploitation, as migrants often receive less pay than promised, work longer hours, and live under the constant threat of having their right to live and work revoked if they complain. Left at the behest of their employer and excluded from domestic labour laws and protections, migrants have little power to assert their basic human rights, so the system really works to remove them from the small amount of money they could’ve amassed by coming to the Gulf in the first place.


What Are We Not Seeing?


Governments are generally aware that the shiny buildings of the Dubai skyline or the new sports stadiums in Qatar and Saudi Arabia are built off the back of such exploitation, but the most unregulated area is the private realm of the home, where female migrant workers are the cooks, cleaners or childcarers. Since employers are protected somewhat by the privacy of their homes, abuse against migrant women is easily unnoticed until more and more bodies arrive at Dhaka airport.

Migrant women not only face exploitation of their labour but also a myriad of abuse and sexual violence as part of an oppressive class and gender system designed to trap them into work, often until they meet a fatal end.

While the conviction and sentencing of Abiron’s murderer may give the appearance of justice being served, the fact remains that above and beyond this singular instance, South Asian women have long witnessed the violence and exploitation of many migrant women (and men) in the Gulf, while simultaneously their employers appear to enjoy near-total immunity from any form of justice. Besides, justice through carceral methods is rarely adequate and is not the long-term, transformative change needed to tackle migrant abuse.


Since 2016, 473 female migrant workers have died abroad, with 175 of these deaths occurring in Saudia Arabia. If you’re curious, that’s approximately one migrant woman dying every 8 days in Saudi Arabia alone, and once every 3 days in the broader Gulf.


In October last year, the human rights group Amnesty International released a report detailing the experiences of female migrant workers in Qatar. Out of 105 women, 32 said they had received verbal abuse, 23 were denied adequate food, medical care and shelter, and 15 had suffered physical abuse ranging from spitting and slapping to much severe assaults. At least five women reported sexual abuse and rape.


When it comes to reporting such incidents, women are faced with the risk that they will lose their employment, which despite the abuse they suffer, means they’ll lose the opportunity to provide for their families who are often reliant on this meagre income or lose a chance at recuperating the relatively substantial sums of money they invested in migrating. Given that the prevalence of gender-based violence in GCC countries is relatively high, plus the stigmas around reporting sexual violence and rape, low-income migrant women who find themselves at the bottom of the social-strata are cut off from any sort of support. These compounded vulnerabilities place migrant women at a rather critical point in the intersecting dynamics of patriarchal structural violence and exploitative labour conditions.


Reform and Responsibility


Some GCC countries have taken steps to reduce the reliance of migrants on their employer and the exploitation that comes with it. In Qatar in January 2020, reform removed the requirement of employees to seek permission from their employer to leave the country with an exit permit. But where there are reforms, there are also often loopholes. It’s like an anti-justice jugaad. In December last year, Saudi Arabia announced it would replace its kafala system with a new contract-based system that allows migrant workers to enter and exit the country more freely and change employers one year into their contract. But, this risks short spells of unemployment for migrant workers, and the question remains whether they will have social welfare protections.


And it’s not just the host countries, but the home countries too. A few years ago, the Nepali government issued an order banning Nepali citizens from travelling to the Gulf directly from Nepal for jobs as domestic workers. The idea aimed to protect workers, but now many women reach the Gulf by going through neighbouring countries like India, adding extra costs and extra risks. Activists rightly pointed out that the embargo discriminates against women as the main group seeking work, but also actively endangers them by opening them up to trafficking and exploitation by groups posing as recruitment agencies who may sell them to another party. The Nepali government’s order means that women are not documented when they migrate, removing consular protections for women who are abused, underpaid, or having their passport confiscated.


The fact of the matter is GCC economies need migrant labour, so reform often only takes marginal steps to maintain the current system and achieve the means beneficial to GCC governments and employers, only to unceremoniously dispose of them when the winds shift. When it comes to labour rights, home and host countries have a responsibility to reform the system to shift the power solely from the hands of employers. But they also must consider the intersecting gender-based violence that creates a more violent reality for migrant women. And whilst this may seem like a long way away, Saudia Arabia’s reform may push other GCC countries to take similar steps, given their geopolitical standing in the region.


Home governments should push better awareness and education on the conditions of migrant labour, through ad campaigns and legislation that makes it a requirement for recruitment agencies to inform potential migrants of their labour rights before making the decision to travel. Such campaigns do exist right now, but they shouldn’t be left to the work of NGOs and communities organisations alone. Ultimately, what remains clear is that more preventative measures are needed so that women have channels to seek help and are actually listened to, ideally, before more cases like Abiron Begum Ansar happen.


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